The Little Dog

Ben stood in the dark hallway of the large, stone house. Outside the air was hot but here it was cool. Removal men bumped and strained around him. He was a forlorn six-year-old lost and forgotten in the chaos. Normally, he bubbled with curiosity and adventure. He liked to explore the natural world. He loved to be in the open air. Now, he stood uncertain. Moving to this new house with its enormous, verdant garden terrified him. He had left everything he had ever known. The security of the home where he was born. His bedroom with its pale, green paintwork and dinosaur border. The safety of his Grandma whom he loved best of all. He would miss her gentle, laughing voice. Her silly stories. Her funny songs. He would miss her cuddling him close and the warm smell of her rose-perfumed cardigan.

A new home meant a new school. His stomach gripped tight when he thought of it. He would have to talk to new children. Make friends. He was happiest in the company of adults. He could find interesting things to tell them; about animals, plants and insects. Grown-ups listened, asked you questions, wanted to know. Children were rough and tumble. They shouted, tugged at you, talked nonsense.

‘Ben darling,’ Mum called him softly, ‘Why don’t we go and look at your new room?’

‘All right,’ he said, reluctantly leaving his corner.

He followed Mum upstairs, along a bright landing and into a large comfortable looking room. His bed was there and boxes full of his things.

‘It will soon be your room – just like the old house,’ Mum smiled, ‘Why don’t you start unpacking? I have to make the workers some tea but I’ll come back in a bit.’

Ben went over to the window. A spider skittered wildly across the glass. His nose wrinkled in concentration. As he watched, he whispered to himself under his breath. He looked out at the garden. On the lawn sat a little white dog gazing up at him. It seemed friendly. Wagging tail, shaggy hair and beady, black eyes. Ben ran out of his bedroom, down the stairs and into the garden. The dog still sat on the grass.

‘Hello little dog,’ he said holding out his hand carefully.

The dog eyed him excitedly, pink tongue lolling to the side of his mouth. Ben thought he was smiling. He knelt down on the springy grass.

‘Come here,’ he said tapping his knees, ‘Come to me little dog!’

The dog ran to Ben and barked invitingly. The two new companions played in the garden all afternoon.

 

When Ben returned to the house, face flushed with exercise and excitement, his parents smiled knowingly at one another.

‘I see you’ve been enjoying the garden,’ Dad said, ruffling his butter-coloured hair.

‘I enjoyed playing with the little dog,’ Ben said, his intelligent brown eyes alight, ‘We found lots of insects and a pond with frogs.’

‘Must be a neighbour’s dog,’ Mum said. ‘Just think, you’ve got the whole holiday to play. But now…it’s tea, bath and bed for you. You’re filthy!’

 

Ben played outside every day, little dog at his heels. One afternoon, they were investigating a different corner of the garden. It was shady and overgrown; weeds reached up to Ben’s waist. Nearing a stone wall, the dog began to whine, pawing at the ground and cowering in the damp undergrowth.

‘What’s wrong little dog?’ Ben asked, screwing up his nose in thought, ‘Nothing to be scared of…we’ll look after each other.’

He picked up a narrow branch and thrashed at the long grass. The dog did not move. Ben pulled away the vegetation, clearing an area next to the wall.

‘This is hard work…just move this…oh…what’s that?’ he muttered to himself as he worked.

Ben knelt on the soft ground. He saw a small headstone, worn and green with age. He could not see any writing on it. He turned to show the little dog but he was gone.

 

At bedtime, Ben told Mum about his discovery.

‘This is an old house,’ she said, ‘…must be someone’s much loved pet, buried in the garden.’ She kissed him goodnight. Ben fell asleep thinking about who might have lived there before.

 

All summer, Ben played with the little dog. They became best friends, sharing fears and worries. He began to love the house and garden. He missed his Grandma but, with the dog by his side, he felt he could cope with anything. Even starting a new school.

 

The holidays were nearing an end. Ben stood at the window, waiting. He was excited. His nose rumpled with anticipation.

‘Soon be here…won’t be long now…,’ he chattered happily to himself.

Dad’s car pulled up the drive.

‘She’s here!’ Ben shouted. He watched his Grandma walk up the path carrying a large box.

Grandma came into the hall. She put the box gently on the floor.

‘Hello my boy,’ she said, eyes sparkling. She bent and kissed Ben’s curly mop.

‘Grandma…’ he hugged her tight, breathing in the smell of flowers.

‘I’ve got a present for you,’ Grandma said. She passed him the box, ‘Open it carefully.’

Ben could hear a snuffling, scratching sound from inside. He lifted the flaps cautiously. A small puppy pushed out its head. Bright eyes, wet nose, black and white fur.

‘Thought you might like one of your own…’ Grandma smiled, ‘He can walk with you to school.’

‘Oh…’ Ben gasped. He delicately picked up the dog and held it close. It smelt warm and safe.

‘Thank you Grandma,’ he said.

Ben loved his puppy. He ran out to find the little dog. It would be fun to explore – all three together.

‘Little dog!’ he called but there was no response.

Ben knotted his forehead. Holding his pup to his chest, he searched for the little dog in every corner of the garden. There was no sign of him.

 

Every day Ben played in the garden with his puppy but he never saw the little dog again.

October in the Library

October is here and autumn has arrived in full force. Everywhere are signs of decay: the fallen leaves turn mushy on the wet grass, fungi grow puffed and swollen along the woodland paths, branches creak and tumble in the howling wind. We leave the house in darkness and return in darkness. We begin to look towards festivals that mark the end of the abundant summer and the beginning of the cold, dark winter.

This is the time of year associated with death. When the divide between the living and the dead becomes a thin veil and spirits may cross easily into this world. For our ancestors, winter was a difficult and dangerous time. On the night of Samhain, they believed the ghosts of the dead returned to earth; some to cause mischief. They lit bonfires to keep away evil spirits, left offerings of food to appease the Gods and held feasts for dead kin, in the hope that they would make it through the coming darkness.

Soon, many families will celebrate Hallowe’en. Children, and some adults too, will enjoy dressing up, grotesque party food and scary stories. Although the shops are full of tawdry, plastic trinkets, unpleasant costumes and cynical commercialism, these activities are the evolution of ancient traditions. For that reason, I find the end of October a special time. The dark, chill nights are filled with the melancholy of seasons passing; the year is heading towards its end. There is hopefulness too, standing by a roaring, hot bonfire; the flames spread light into the moody, black sky. I think about past days, people I have lost, people I have forgotten. I remember my childhood; I enjoyed a good scare then, as I do today.

I remember one particular day in the school library…

Everyone was surprised when I wasn’t made a Prefect in my final year at Junior school. Pupils were usually awarded the role as a reward for academic or sporting success. I didn’t mind, though. In fact, I was relieved. Prefects stood in the corridors telling other kids off for running instead of walking. They were unpopular; bossy and rude teacher’s pets.

The teaching staff chose to make me a Librarian instead. Being a Librarian meant staying in at break times. It meant avoiding the playground with its noisy, rough games of Bulldog and Tag. It meant sitting in the quiet hush, organizing, labelling and cataloguing books, checking records, tidying shelves, making displays, and best of all, when the library was empty, which it often was, reading. Those teachers knew what they were doing.

One lunchtime, I was in the library with my friend, Dean. We had just finished creating a display of new adventure stories. We sat satisfied with our work, laughing and chatting in subdued voices about the myth of the ghost that haunted the library. Like all schools, there were many tales of ghostly happenings. The fact that the library was haunted was well-known. Stories of strange bumps and scrapes, chills down the back of the neck and shifting, shadowy shapes were shared with giggles and gasps between classmates. Exactly who or what haunted the library was unknown.

Certainly, the library had a special atmosphere of its own. Entering it was like entering a different world, far removed from the hustle of school life. It was cool and peaceful. The lighting muted. The outside world muffled as if it might even have ceased to exist.

Dean and I didn’t believe in the ghost nonsense. For us, the library was a place where we felt comfortable and safe; unthreatened amongst the neat rows of books. As we shook ours heads and tutted scornfully at the silliness of our fellow pupils, a book fell violently, in fact almost flew, from a shelf in the furthest corner. We looked at each other in bewilderment. Dean got up and went over, a little cautiously, to pick it up. Then, he yelped and dropped the book as if it had bitten him.

“What is it?” I asked in surprise.

“The book.” he said, pointing to where it lay on the floor.

I walked across to see what he was talking about. There sat the book on the dusty, grey linoleum. Its title: ‘Ghost Stories.’

 

Have you ever had a strange, other-worldly experience?